Fun with developmental economics animal metaphors

Is the age of the "Growth Panda" upon us?

Published September 18, 2006 5:33PM (EDT)

Rhetoric alert! While discussing the the stalled Doha trade round in the Indian Economy blog, Barcelona-based economist Edward Hugh let slip a comment about "all these newfound Growth Pandas and Growth Elephants becoming more evident by the day."

OK. I know Asian Tigers. I know Asian Little Dragons. But this was the first I've seen mention of "growth pandas."

The reference is clearly to China and India, and perhaps other emerging "big" economies like Brazil. The intent, I assume, is to differentiate these nations from the "small" success stories of the past -- the aforementioned tigers and little dragons -- Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong. The reason why such a differentiation is needed, perhaps, is that the ultimate impact of these elephants and pandas on the global economy will be much more significant than that of their predecessors. India and China may well be the future locomotives of global growth. Taiwan, for all its pesky hustling, will never aspire to that honor.

But wait. I can understand an elephant being mightier than a little dragon, or even a tiger. But a panda? Even a giant panda? A giant cute, fuzzy animal munching peacefully on bamboo? Does that metaphor stand even the slightest stress test against the reality of China? (And as far as I know, pandas have yet to be discovered in the rain forests of Brazil or the Ganges plain, so is it really that broadly applicable?)

These rhetorical designations are important -- they frame future debates, and help construct identities that shape how we think about the world. (For an intriguing, if a bit dry, exploration of how the tiger and dragon formulations represent a very particular, and ideologically inflected, interpretation of Taiwanese history and identity, try this excerpt from Taiwan expert Mark Harrison's forthcoming book "Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity.")

Images of giant pandas lull us to complacency. Meanwhile, elephants are wont to trample. We could delve further into this minefield (the sad tale of Ya Ya rolling over and smothering her newborn baby last week comes to mind) but perhaps it's best to hold off on any further speculation. A cursory search this morning suggests that, as of this moment, the term "growth panda" is far from common in the lexicon of development economics.

And maybe it should stay that way.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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